I painted a very special portrait recently, special because it was commissioned as a gift for a friend’s significant birthday, a friend who I know as well, and because it was to include all the cats with whom she had shared her life to date AND include the red maple outside the window seen in so many photos of her cats, to carry a memory of a happy place far into the future.
Some of you readers may recognize these cats, so I will tell you here that the recipient was Ingrid King of The Conscious Cat. It was commissioned by her friend Kathy. In 2010, Ingrid had commissioned me to paint a portrait of Kathy’s kitty Peaches who had miraculously recovered from a mysterious illness as her amaryllis bloomed just before Christmas, a wonderful gift. Kathy wanted to return the favor for Ingrid’s birthday, and even though they had pledged to not exchange gifts she felt it was important to do so for this one event.
“The idea was for her to see her home, her companion animals and the love that was behind the gesture,” Kathy said. “I knew that you had to be the one as I derived and still receive joy on a daily basis with the portrait that she commissioned for me.”
Kathy let me know of her idea in April, and it began with a painting of Ingrid’s house because of the red maple and its presence in her yard, with the cats in the windows. I’ve done that, though, and the animals always end up far too small or the painting has to be quite large. We discussed narrowing it down the just the maple and the window behind it, with the cats in that window. No one had a photo of the maple in autumn though, but friends went to get photos of just the house and the tree and I could leaf it out.
Another friend sent images of cat art Ingrid had considered and also purchased, and that changed my idea completely. Rather than tie it to strict reality, let’s just include the window with the brilliant tree outside, lots of sunlight, minimal curtains, and all the cats together as if they were really there.
Painting a portrait is one thing, but design comes first in my process with a portrait like this because each set of details, each cat, the window, curtains, everything would be built from one or more photos. Through the years I’ve designed things for Ingrid including bookmarks, a book cover, holiday cards and graphics for her Facebook page, all of which included her cats, so I knew her cats pretty well and had photos of them already, and had some experience designing for her. In 2017 Ingrid commissioned me to paint a landscape to give to a friend as well so I also had experience creating art for her in Kathy’s portrait and the landscape painting.
Initially I had wanted one or more of the cats to be on one level and the rest on a lower level, but couldn’t figure out how to do that without adding something like a cat tree, which I really didn’t want to add to the composition I had in mind, it would be another object, and distracting. I just wanted the beautiful window, the tree, the cats. So even though the window wasn’t wide enough I chose to modify it so that it accommodated all the cats on about the same level. That window does include the fleecy hammock loved by many kitties, so one cat could be in that, leaving only four to fit on the widened windowsill. I began looking for the best photo with the kitty in the hammock, and knew there was one of Allegra that as a bonus also had the tree in the background.
I started with that window, that tree, those curtains and built the background in Photoshop to make sure I kept everything in proportion. The window in the portrait is obviously wider, but I felt I could take artistic license with this to make it work. I straightened the angle of the window, made it wider, placed the tree in the background, and sketched in the curtains and was ready for the cats.
I added Allegra in the hammock, then went in search of photos of the other cats to fit in the composition. I found what Ingrid had commented was her favorite photo of Amber and Buckley, and it was so perfect for the composition, even with the lighting, and for the two girls, I knew it was meant to be.
The photo of Ruby was likewise perfect because at least one of the cats had to be sitting up, and this photo of her had her at the perfect angle, including the right lighting.
Feebee was a little more difficult because I knew of only one photo of Feebee and didn’t want to chance tipping off Ingrid that anything was up by asking for another photo of him out of the blue.
When I compose individual subjects I still need several photos to have all the details I need, even if I have one good pose. I had intentionally placed Feebee behind Allegra and the hammock, but I still had to fill in quite a bit more of him. In that case I choose another cat who resembles the one I’m working on, in this case I chose Moses because I had a photo of her in just about the position I wanted him to be in, and he resembled her so much I felt a connection between the two.
As I’ve been doing when I create portraits or illustrations from many photos, I created the composite in Photoshop, then transferred it to my drawing paper and painted a watercolor wash to be able to find my way around, and to help darken in and brighten up areas before I laid down the pastels. Then I began to work with my larger soft pastel sticks and worked my way down to the sharpened pastel pencils, the tree first, then the cats from left to right, then the curtains and the wall below.
Here are detail images of each of the cats. Click on any image to see an enlarged version.
After the day I painted the tree we all had magenta paws for all the shades of pastel dust that blew off onto the floor.
I love all the portraits I create. I have to, or I’d never hand them over. If I find a section that gives me trouble, I have to work it out. Often there are details I don’t care for, but I determine if that’s me putting my will on something, or if the thing I don’t care for is supposed to be that way. But I enjoy working on them all the way through. I never work on two at the same time because I want to focus not only on my composition, but on the subjects as well, and see what communications they can give me. I have always told my portrait customers that at one point I put away the photos and references and just do the finishing work. After all the time I’ve spent I must know my composition and my subjects pretty well in order to get those final details in there, and in that time of working I find I’ve done things I hadn’t even planned—added colors, changed eye shape a bit, added an ear tilt—and the person who loved that pet will tell me that was exactly the way it was. That information comes from somewhere, and I’m sure the animals, living or beyond, feel my call and let me know.
I told Ingrid after she’d received it this was a portrait I will always love. It took many hours including designing the layout, but the week I painted it was the most perfect early May weather and I worked from start to finish without a hitch, like running out of a critical color of pastel, or needing to rework an area. I listened to my favorite new age music and to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series while I worked; listening to a story while I work, following a plot, helps me keep the part of my imagination focused that tends to wander and distract me. Because everything went so well, I knew it would be good. Each day I looked at what I’d accomplished and was happy.
Each of the cats was different in how they communicated too. Buckley was the happiest and was so easy to paint that she went by too quickly, I wanted to spend more time with her but didn’t want to over work her. Amber was reticent and I had a little difficulty with her markings, but we got along fine in time. Feebee seemed happy having Moses as a model, and Allegra and Ruby were as if they were in the room with me. I framed it and sent it off to Kathy.
No matter how I feel about a portrait, it isn’t complete until the animals’ loved ones approve, so I waited to hear from Kathy or Ingrid, or both. Ingrid shared it on Facebook and tagged me, and then I messaged with her later. I would never print what someone said with out asking so I asked both Kathy and Ingrid to let me know what I could say. Kathy’s comments are above, where she commissioned me, and here is what Ingrid had to say:
This painting represents so much for me: the gift of friendship. The love of all of the cats in my life, both past and present. My beloved maple tree, who is like a member of the family to me. Bernadette captured all of it – the friendship, the cats, the tree – perfectly. Not only did she capture all of these elements visually, she captured the spiritual essence of it all. When I look at the painting, I don’t just see the cats, the window and the tree. I actually feel the presence of the cats who have passed on – it’s like they’re sitting by that very window again, as if they had never left. I viscerally sense the peace that my tree always brings me, especially in the fall, when it turns this spectacular red color. I hung it in my bedroom, next to the “real” window, and I love that it now infuses the room with that warm, red glow all year long, not just those few days in the fall when the tree is at its peak.
Thank you to both Kathy and Ingrid for giving me your comments, but especially thanks to you both for the opportunity to create this gift and to get to know these cats and this beautiful space.
I’ll often share a recipient’s remarks about a portrait in my articles about them, but I’ve never had the honor of a recipient writing about their portrait. Ingrid King shared her thoughts about the portrait I painted for her friend Kathy to give as a gift.
In 1992 when I began this journey to render portraits of animals, hence the name of my business, I knew there would be much more to it than simply copying photographs. A review like this, 26 years later, shows me that I was right, and I followed the path that was for me. Many people over the years asked me why I didn’t just paint the photos people gave me and save time and effort, and then I could charge less and paint more. But for all the information I take in while I work on a portrait, I could not ignore, and for all the people who feel the presence of their precious companions in what I’ve painted, I would never do less than I do. This is what I was meant to do, and how I was meant to do it.
Please read Ingrid’s post, A very Special Painting.
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